In 2012, Chicago Cubs first baseman Bryan LaHair hit 14 home runs in the first half and was named to the NL All-Star team. The 29-year-old had a grand total of 195 career major league at-bats coming into the season. He hit three home runs the rest of the year and never played another game in the big leagues.
“Career minor-leaguer puts together an unsustainable run to briefly achieve MLB relevance” isn’t a unique tale, but it takes on a different tone if you cut the season in half.
The coronavirus pandemic has ensured the 2020 MLB season, if we’re lucky enough to have one, will look unlike any other. A proposed 82-game schedule with a universal DH and realigned divisional play will have major sports betting ramifications, with player props presenting the biggest wild cards.
LaHair’s 14 dingers through the first half were four behind eventual league leader Miguel Cabrera, who slugged 44 home runs en route to the AL MVP award. The superhuman talents of a future Hall of Famer will always trump the hot streak of a below-average player over 162 games. But over 82? Suddenly LaHair’s in the mix for the home run crown.
Big bats with long odds
The favorites for 2020 home run leader on DraftKings Sportsbook and FanDuel Sportsbook are the usual suspects, with Mike Trout, Pete Alonso, Joey Gallo, and Giancarlo Stanton in the top four. Odds range from +950 to +1300 across both sites. Then come Cody Bellinger, Nolan Arenado, Aaron Judge, and so on. Betting on perennial All-Stars is always a safe choice, but the shortened season presents some intriguing opportunities.
Kyle Schwarber launched a career-high 38 long balls in 2019, while boosting his hard contact rate for the second consecutive year. His flyball and home-run-to-fly-ball rates were right in line with his career averages. Schwarber finished well behind Alonso for the league lead in home runs last season, but he’s shown the skills to keep pace. Plus, the proposed geographical scheduling could see Alonso going up strictly against the pitching staffs of the NL and AL East, a tough task.
Schwarber is outside the top 25 in home run leader odds on both DraftKings and FanDuel, at +5000 and +6000 respectively.
Franmil Reyes mashed 27 home runs in 99 games despite playing home games in pitcher-friendly Petco Park, then was dealt from San Diego to Cleveland and hit 10 additional bombs in 51 games last year. The outfielder was 12th in at-bats per home run and just outside the top 20 in isolated power. The proposed schedule would give Reyes more at-bats in hitter-friendly Milwaukee and Cincinnati.
DraftKings has Reyes at +3500 and FanDuel at +4000 to lead the league in home runs.
George Springer, Javier Baez, and Edwin Encarnacion are all proven power bats currently penciled in at +6500 or longer odds at both books, and the list goes on. One power binge can decide this race in a shortened season.
Aces facing weak competition
The makeup of the schedule will have a major impact on both Cy Young races, as strength of opponent could drastically change if it’s done by region.
Of the top three Cy Young favorites in each league on DraftKings and FanDuel, four of the six pitchers are in the East. But Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, Gerrit Cole, and Blake Snell would be stuck battling excellent offenses in the Nationals, Braves, Mets, Yankees, and Rays all season. Even the Blue Jays, Red Sox, and Phillies are dangerous.
This makes the Central and West pitchers much more appealing, and especially the latter. Hurlers in the West will get to beat up on the Giants, Mariners, and Rangers, plus the Rockies aren’t nearly as imposing away from Coors Field. The Dodgers and Astros have great lineups, but after that there isn’t much resistance. The Central ends about being basically a wash with an even mix of good and bad teams, which is still better than pitching in the East.
Justin Verlander is among the AL Cy Young favorites at both books, but Houston teammate Zack Greinke is outside the top 10 at +2500 on DraftKings and +3500 on FanDuel. Greinke won the award back in 2009 with Kansas City and has earned NL Cy Young votes in four different seasons, finishing second in 2015. After coming over to the Astros at the 2019 trade deadline, he went 8-2 with a 3.02 ERA and a 52:9 K:BB in 62.2 innings.
Wins aren’t the most telling pitching stat, but Cy Young voters seem to weigh them heavily. It’s not hard to imagine Greinke winning double-digit games on a stellar Houston squad and snagging the award even if his strikeout numbers don’t compete with guys like Verlander, Cole, and Mike Clevinger. The same goes for Clayton Kershaw and David Price, with the Dodgers likely winning a bunch of games and boosting the Cy Young resumes of their starters.
Sonny Gray was left for dead after a rough season and a half in New York, but regained his Oakland form in 2019 with Cincinnati, earning an All-Star selection. He finished fifth in the NL in ERA, eighth in WHIP, and 10th in strikeouts per 9 innings. Gray’s 6.3 hits allowed per 9 innings led the NL and ranked only behind Cole and Verlander in the league.
The cherry on top is the Reds are actually going to be good this year, with Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections forecasting them to win the NL Central. Gray could regress a bit and still win 8-10 games with solid ratios, which would look even better alongside an NL Central title. He’s at +3500 on FanDuel and +4000 on DraftKings to win the NL Cy Young.
A shortened season doesn’t guarantee a longshot will win any major awards, but the chances have never been so strong. Maybe this will be Bryan LaHair’s year.
Photo by Benny Sieu / USA Today Sports